US Congress skeptical of Iran nuclear talks extension

A traffic light shows red in front of the US Capitol on October 3, 2013 in Washington (AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan) (AFP/File)

Washington (AFP) - US House and Senate members reacted coolly Monday to an extension of international negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, with skeptical lawmakers demanding Congress "tighten the economic vice on Tehran" through new sanctions.

No sooner had the extension been announced in Vienna and US Secretary of State John Kerry implored US lawmakers not to "walk away" from the negotiations by slapping punitive sanctions on Iran, that several lawmakers advocated just that, setting up a potential White House clash with Congress.

"Now more than ever, it's critical that Congress enacts sanctions that give Iran's mullahs no choice but to dismantle their illicit nuclear program," Republican Senator Mark Kirk, who supports new sanctions, said in a statement.

"Congress will not give Iran more time to build a nuclear bomb."

Kirk has drawn up tough legislation with Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez, a Democrat, that would see sanctions kick in should Iran violate terms of the temporary agreement or future deal.

But the Senate leadership has refused to bring it to the floor, allowing a chance for President Barack Obama's administration to pursue its negotiations.

Menendez suggested legislative action was vital to a breakthrough.

"I intend to work with my Senate colleagues in a bipartisan manner in the coming weeks to ensure that Iran comprehends that we will not ever permit it to become a threshold nuclear state," he said.

- New sanctions 'counterproductive' -

But Senator Tim Johnson, chairman of the Banking Committee through which sanctions legislation often passes before getting a full vote, warned that imposing new sanctions "now would be grossly counterproductive."

Hawkish Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte said they supported additional sanctions as negotiations continue, and demanded "any final deal between Iran and the United States be sent to Congress for approval."

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce said Obama should support new sanctions as a way to increase leverage on Iran.

"This seven-month extension should be used to tighten the economic vice on Tehran -- already suffering from falling energy prices -- to force the concessions that Iran has been resisting," Royce said in a statement.

Royce was backed by panel Democrat Brad Sherman, who said new sanctions are the "best hope for a good agreement."

House Speaker John Boehner was more vague in urging pressure on Tehran.

"Instead of giving Iran more flexibility, we should be holding this regime accountable for the threat it poses to the region," Boehner said.

Senator Bob Corker, tipped to replace Menendez as the powerful Foreign Relations chairman when Republicans take full control of Congress in January, supported a threat of new sanctions should the Iran deal ultimately fall apart.

"Congress must have the opportunity to weigh in before implementation of any final agreement and begin preparing alternatives, including tougher sanctions, should negotiations fail," Corker.

The State Department acknowledged the role of sanctions in bringing Tehran to the negotiations.

"On the other hand, sanctions are not alone going to get us the comprehensive deal," State Department spokesman Jeffrey Rathke told reporters.